Europe

Cuban refugee boat washes up on County Sligo beach

boat
Image caption The boat washed up on a beach in County Sligo

On a sandy beach on the west coast of Ireland lies the remains of a strange looking boat.

The improvised vessel washed up on Cliffoney beach in County Sligo.

Image caption A car engine was connected to a broken propeller

It is made from a metal frame partly covered in yellow tarpaulin, with expanded foam and water bottles used for buoyancy.

A closer inspection beneath the overturned hull, now covered in barnacles, reveals a car engine connected to a broken propeller.

The boat caught the interest of Gordon Fallis, who saw it as he was walking his dogs along the beach.

Image caption Gordon Fallis came across the boat as he was walking his dogs on the beach

"I didn't really know what it was to be honest, so I took a few photographs of it and when I got home I posted it on a Facebook page called Lost at Sea which tracks marine debris and cargo spills and things that get washed up on beaches," he said.

Image caption When Gordon Fallis checked the water bottles it was clear where they came from

He was contacted by a man from Florida who recognised the design as being similar to Cuban refugee boats.

"He advised me to have a look at the bottles again to see where they came from so I came back down and looked at the labels and indeed they were from Cuba, exactly the same brand that he had predicted, so it seems that it is actually a boat that the refugees have used to try and get to America from Cuba," he said.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Between November 2015 and October 2016 the US Coast Guard apprehended 5,263 Cubans at sea

Since 1995, under a policy known as "wet foot, dry foot", if Cubans are picked up at sea they are returned home or taken to a third country, but if they make it to American soil they get the opportunity to stay and become legal residents.

Between November 2015 and October 2016 the US Coast Guard apprehended 5,263 Cubans at sea.

Image caption Bill Klipp has seen many similar boats that have been abandoned on small remote islands around the Florida Keys

It is thought that hundreds of thousands of Cubans attempted the journey before the policy was ended last month just before President Obama left office.

American photographer Bill Klipp has seen many similar boats that have been abandoned on small remote islands around the Florida Keys.

Image copyright Bill Klipp
Image caption The same distinctive yellow tarpaulin can be seen on this 'chug' that washed up on the Florida Keys

He is sure the boat washed up in Ireland is what is known as a Cuban "chug" - named after the sound of the crude motors as they make the slow journey across the sea.

"They're surely not moving very fast and I think it just comes from that notion that they're just barely making it, they're chugging as best as they can to get across the ocean," he said.

Image copyright Bill Klipp
Image caption One of the Cuban chugs that Bill Klipp photographed in Florida

"Key West, where I live, is only 90 miles for Havana so it's a relatively short distance to landfall although the Florida Straits can be a pretty treacherous body of water to cross."

While it is possible that the occupants of this vessel were picked up at sea and the boat was left to drift, Bill Klipp believes it is more likely that the weather and ocean currents took it off course.

Image copyright Bill Klipp
Image caption The USCG painted on this vessel in Florida means the occupants were found by the US Coastguard. The vessel in Ireland was too badly damaged to tell if there was ever a similar marking

"If that boat could tell its story it would tell a story of real despair and desperation, that's for sure," he said.

"Obviously the occupants didn't make it and that's kind of a sad story there but that's unfortunately a story that's happened too much over the last couple of decades."

Image caption It is the first time such a vessel has been recorded being washed up in Europe

It is the first time such a vessel has been recorded being washed up in Europe according to Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a retired oceanographer based in Seattle who tracks ocean debris.

He said it could take months or years for it to make the journey of more than 4,000 miles across the Atlantic.

Image caption Mr Ebbesmeyer said the vessels "symbolise what the price people are willing to pay to gain their freedom in the United States"

"The drift rate depends on how much the vessel is sticking out of the water and the rate could be a matter of six months or it could be a matter of years depending on whether the vessel drifted around some of the garbage patches in the Atlantic or made a straight journey across," he said.

Mr Ebbesmeyer said the vessels "symbolise what price people are willing to pay to gain their freedom in the United States".

Image caption The hull of the overturned boat is now covered in barnacles

"I would reflect on questions. Did the people make it? Are they in the United States? Did they die? Did they perish a terrible death out in the middle of the Atlantic?"

"They're really worth moments of reflection as you walk by," he said.

Standing on Cliffoney beach as the waves of the north Atlantic break beneath a grey sky, Gordon Fallis said he is glad he discovered more about the boat.

Image caption The discovery has helped to bring the story of the Cuban refugees to people thousands of miles away

"It's just great to be able to contact people who are able to identify it for me otherwise I would have just walked on past it thinking "that's a strange boat on the beach" and that would have been the last I would have heard of it," he said.

While the fate of those on board may never be known, the discovery has helped to bring the story of the Cuban refugees to people thousands of miles away.